Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy

During his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama offered several recommendations on education policy, including one specifying that all states increase the age of compulsory school attendance to 18. Approximately 25 percent of public school students in the U.S. don’t obtain a regular high school diploma, a tragedy for them and a heavy burden for the nation and the communities and states in which they live. Certainly, America needs to address this problem, but is raising the compulsory school attendance (CSA) age a viable solution?

In a new paper, Russ Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield perform original analysis to investigate if CSA ages actually affect graduation rates. Their data show that states with higher CSA ages do not have higher high school graduation rates than states with lower CSA ages. 

Other key findings include:

  • The costs of raising the CSA age for additional teachers and classrooms are likely to be minimal because compliance with a higher CSA age will be low.
  • Raising the CSA age does little to address the root causes of high dropout rates and is unlikely to produce increases in high school graduation rates that will be noticeable to state policymakers and taxpayers.
  • There is no consistent relationship between the leniency in the laws governing the CSA age and rates of school attendance.
  • Raising the CSA age may induce some portion of the population of eventual school dropouts to stay in school a few weeks or months longer in order to reach the legal age at which they can leave school.  They may benefit as a result but not nearly so much as they would if they persisted until graduation.
  • There are a number of interventions and policies that target students and schools that experience high dropout rates that have been shown to be effective in increasing persistence and high school completion.  Any effort to meaningfully reduce dropout rates needs to include such interventions.

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